A Polemic on Modern Liberal Democratic Politics

It seems fairly obvious that a political system in a society needs to have a way of guaranteeing that the long term interests of the society, including the interests of future generations are taken care of and respected (intergenerational justice.) This seems to simply flow from the recognition that all other things equal we want a society to develop to the fullest of its potential, and to be structured so that future generations are not sacrificed for the present desires of existing generations.  According to some, like Burke, one way of ensuring this is through the presence of an aristocratic land-owning class. This class is tied to their estate and has a long term interest in the well-being and health of their state as they want to pass on a fine legacy to their descendants.

However, nothing like this class exists in modern liberal democracies, so what methods do liberal democracies have to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice? One method is through trying to create institutions that serve to ensure that these long term interests are safeguarded. However, I will argue that in themselves institutions are not enough to ensure long term interests and intergenerational justice whether in an aristocracy, mixed constitution or a democracy. Instead, a particular kind of culture and public ethic needs to exist that actively condemns sacrificing genuine long term interests to immediate self-interest. As such a culture will help to ensure the long term good of the society is actively maintained.

To serve long term interest and the justice of future generations some modern liberal democratic states have tried to create certain institutions to secure these goods. One such example of this is the US Senate.  In contrast to the House of Representatives in which Representatives have a two year term US Senators have a term of six years. Part of the justification of having these two bodies separate is that the House of Representatives would tend to be more dominated by the needs of political expediency as members of this body have to be extremely concerned with how they vote as their term is so short that they are likely to be punished in an election if they vote against their constituent’s avowed interests. Consequently, members of this legislative body would be more likely to simply vote in a way that got them re-elected rather than in a way that necessary served the long term interest of the community. Contrastingly according to this justification due to the fact that senators have a six year term they are more free to vote according to their best judgment about the interests of the community as their term is long enough that the senator can show their constituents that while their constituents may have initially disagreed with the senator’s actions, his or her actions are actually supportive of their interests, and the long term interest of the state.

While this justification of the US Senate is somewhat plausible, given the current state of US politics it seems that this institutional structure is not enough to secure intergenerational justice and long term interests.  Currently, in the US, at all levels of government including the Senate political expedience seems to dominate over genuine deliberation concerning long term interests. The deliberations within both the lower and upper house have become but theatrical precursors to an election in which senators strut before voters and make sure that their actions translate into electability rather than ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice.

If the example provided by the US Senate is at all typical then it seems that institutions structured in a particular way are not enough to ensure some semblance of intergenerational justice and the safeguarding of long term interests. Even when these institutions are present we tend to see politics in modern liberal democracies dominated by political game playing that serves to ensure an official is re-elected rather than that long term interests are taken care of.

One element that can ameliorate this problem in modern liberal democracies is a culture and public ethic that condemns political activity that puts immediate self-interest ahead of the pursuit of long term interests and intergenerational justice. The trouble with modern liberal democracies is not just that institutions are not perfectly setup but that as a whole we have come to accept the unabashed pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law as legitimate. Just as we do not condemn someone for leaving a company at a challenging time for that company because they have received a tempting job offer, so to in politics we do not condemn voters, or politicians for pursuing their immediate self-interest at the expense of long term interests and intergenerational justice. There is a mild distaste for the crass pursuit of self-interest by politicians, but by and large we do not condemn them and view these agents as having violated some important principle. Instead we see it as the norm for politicians to act this way, and while this norm may bother us we are resigned to accept it as natural.

However, if a culture condemns political activity that pursues immediate self-interest at the expense of all other goods and positively affirms the value of defending long term interests and intergenerational justice, then this would help to ensure that long term interests and intergenerational justice were taken care of.  In this kind of culture all will be more likely to recognize the value of the goods of long term societal interests and intergenerational justice, and act from these principles as the culture affirms them, and consequently people would be honoured for ensuring long term interests and intergenerational justice, and dishonoured for sacrificing these goods before the goddess of immediate self-interest. Therefore, a certain kind of culture and public ethic would help to ensure that politics in a liberal democracy serves long term interests and intergenerational justice.

Similarly, this point does not merely apply to liberal democracies, but to other forms of government as well. What ensures that long term interests are served in an aristocracy is not the presence of a landed gentry itself,  but rather the presence of a landed gentry that recognizes that as powerful members of their community they have the responsibility to ensure the long term interests of their state by taking care of their estate and subjects. If an aristocrat in an aristocracy were to act based on crass self-interest they would not ensure long term interest and intergenerational justice as there is no reason inherent in being a member of the landed gentry that determines that one will take care of one’s estate and subject and pass on a fine legacy to one’s descendent and future subjects. What ensures that the landed gentry secure long term interests and intergenerational justice is the culture and public ethic that they act from, not the institution of the landed gentry itself.

However, in putting forward an argument for this kind of political culture that condemns sacrificing long term interests for immediate self-interest we are faced with a huge challenge on three fronts. The first and most obvious challenge is how such a culture comes into being while respecting the independence and freedom of persons. Many historical attempts by states to make a certain kind of culture have been utterly disastrous and cruel such as the Terror in the French Revolution and attempts to assimilate groups like Canadian First Nations. This should make us very cautious about how state policy is used to try to purposefully shape a culture.

The second challenge is that acts that pursue the long term interest and intergenerational justice are not immediately transparent. It is fairly easy for a politician, voter or activist to do something that only furthers their immediate self-interest and yet present it as something that furthers long term interests; in the case of a politician they just need to espouse an argument that shows how their actions will serve long term interests even if this argument is particularly facile or weak. Consequently, it is not always easy to determine when we are dealing with overt acts of immediate self-interest versus at the expense of long term interests and acts that are meant to pursue the overall good of the community including its long term interests and intergenerational justice.

The other challenge is more particular to modern liberal democracy, and that is that these societies carry a heavy mark of consumerism, and consumerism is dominated by the pursuit of immediate self-interest and instant gratification. This raises the question of if the kind of political culture that I am gesturing towards is compatible with our current consumerist economic way of life as there is something quite schizophrenic about rejecting the uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest within the bounds of law within the economic sphere, while rejecting it in the political sphere.  Unfortunately, if it turns out that these two modes of activity are incompatible then we will have to choose between a politics that can help us secure intergenerational justice as well as long term interests and the maintenance of our current economic practises.

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Do businesspeople make good political representatives?

In the context of liberal democratic politics, a candidate running for election often suggests that they are qualified to be a political representative because of their experience as a businessperson. This idea is problematic as the qualities required to be effective in business are distinct from those required to be an effective representative. Similarly, the fact that many people think that the qualities that ensure success in business will ensure that one is an effective political representative is problematic, as it embodies a failure to understand the differences between the purposes and practise of politics and the purposes and practises of business.

The qualities of an effective businessperson and an effective representative differ greatly. The businessperson must work with others, but their goal is singular, given and not amenable to differences of interpretation. That goal is to make the greatest profit that they possibly can for the company that they own, or work for. The goal is singular as there is only one goal. The goal is given as the goal of business is not something that is up for debate; it is inherent to the practise of business itself that its fundamental goal is profit.  The goal is not amenable to differences of interpretation as profit has a single meaning, and it would be bizarre if someone said they disagreed with another person’s interpretation of profit. Consequently, the businessperson is someone who must work to figure out the best means to maximize a goal that is singular, given and not amenable to interpretation.

Contrastingly, the activity of the representative consists in participating in self-government and what the goals of self-government are is up for debate, and the goals of self-government tend to open to differences of interpretation. That the goals of self-government are up for debate becomes clear in that, within a democratic context, different groups contest what goals the government should be promoting. Some tend to favour the promotion of economic growth, while others wish to promote social equity, and other wish to promote individual self-development. There is no obvious, unquestionable goal, or set of goals, that can be taken as the only thing that government should pursue.  Likewise, even the nature of the goals of government themselves are up for debate. Parties of the right and parties of the left in post-industrial countries tend to both see themselves as supporting the goal of ensuring equality of opportunity. But those on the right see equality of opportunity as involving ensuring that there are no legal blockages that prevent people from accessing an opportunity, whereas those on the left tend to see equality of opportunity as requiring a more substantive redistribution of wealth to ensure that the life chances of the less well-off are equivalent to the life chances of the affluent.  In this sense being a political representative requires not only speaking with others about the means to a given end, but also conversing about which particular interpretation of a particular end it makes sense for government to pursue.

It should be noted that while it is plausible to think that self-government has a single goal; it is also plausible to think that self-government has several goals. For example, we might be concerned with fostering social solidarity and community, as well as supporting economic growth. But for the purposes of this blog, I will be agnostic as to whether self-government has one goal or many.

Taking the preceding into account it seems deeply implausible to think that someone who is an effective businessperson will also necessarily be an effective political representative. The goals of business and the goals of self-government differ in quality, and thus in order to be an effective representative one must be able to work with others to make salient points in favour of ends that serve one’s consituent’s interest, and be able to work with one’s equals to come up with a fair compromises to deal with pressing problems. Unfortunately, businesspeople often have neither of these abilities as working in business often does not require one to work with one’s equals as the chain of command in business tends to negate the possibility of having to work with someone who is not one’s inferior or superior. Likewise, businesspeople are not used to articulating why a particular end should be pursued, as this requires a deeply refined understanding of goods (values) and the ability to persuade others of what ends should be pursued, and working in business does not develop these traits. A business person might be able to tell us how to most efficiently bill people for use of public transit, but they have no privilege in claiming that they have a better understanding of the degree to which public transit should be endorsed and supported, than those who are not businesspeople.

What does it say about liberal democracies that if a candidate claims to be a businessperson they are automatically viewed as more qualified to be a political representative by many? It says that the many in this case have failed to understand the difference between politics and business, and are reducing politics to economics, or that the many think that businesspeople will be more effective at getting the government to do what they want. In the former case we have a problem because if politics is reduced to economics in the popular consciousness than we fail to understand that political decisions can undermine certain goods, or give certain goods a preeminence they have never seen before, and if we lose our understanding of this than we cannot adequately take account of all that is at stake in political decision making. If we do not take account of all that is at stake in political decisions than we cannot effectively reflect upon and take responsibility for the decisions that are being made.  In the latter case, we still have a problem because if we merely see our representatives as those that can get the government to do what we want, than we have reduced politics to a war by other means, in which case the common interest could never be adequately served.